HBO’s Veep just wrapped up its acclaimed and popular fifth season at the end of June. We watched Julia Louis Dreyfus’ President Selina Meyer attempt to retain the presidency, which she haphazardly ascended into after an electoral college tie in an election. As a big fan of BBC political satire The Thick of It, I quickly cozied up to Veep (headed up by Thick of It creator Armando Iannucci) because of its similarly raw and incisive satire of American politics.
Dramatising the inner workings of modern democracy is not a particularly easy task; building dramatic tension around the passage of bills or the claiming of cabinet positions tends to be difficult even when the events are unfolding on the evening news and may have a real effect on the lives of viewers, never mind when the viewer is passively watching a fictional president flub their inauguration.
Netflix’s House of Cards, upon its initial release as the streaming service’s first piece of original programming, was feted as an excellent dramatisation of American electoral politics, that made a political system that was turning people off with obstruction and shutdowns into something lively and entertaining which could reel viewers in. Now that the show has had a chance to settle into our viewing landscape as it completed its fourth season in March, its drama and substance have flagged, instead revealing an excellently acted, competently shot and yet incoherently written mess where the tangible drama and tragedy of representative democracy is replaced with scenes based around the parliamentary equivalent of a particularly mean-spirited game of Mario Kart; malicious and amusing but too cartoonish to really tell us anything useful about reality.
‘Veep’ on the other hand has sort of flown under the radar until recently, despite a steady audience and a very warm critical reception. The series hasn’t quite garnered the buzz or attention that House of Cards continues, even as that series declines in quality and Veep really comes into its own. This is especially a shame because Veep, despite not being quite as replete with murder and Machiavellian scheming as House of Cards, remains the far more affecting and insightful expose of 21st century politics.
HoC’s vision of politics is a dark one without a doubt and yet there remains a kind of comfort in it. It assures us that politicians are almost entirely corrupt, malicious scoundrels, but they are scoundrels of overwhelming cunning and intelligence who may even drop the occasional crumb down to the rest of us if it suits their agendas. This pantomime parliament of super-villains makes both for exciting viewing but also a totally cartoonish view of politics. It would be so much easier to solve the problems of our political system if the world of House of Cards was in fact a sobering look at reality as opposed to the political equivalent of a Saturday morning cartoon filled with moustache twirling sociopaths. House of Cards is unable to hold the viewer’s interest precisely because, despite Kevin Spacey’s gripping performance, we see no really fundamental change in Frank Underwood over the course of the series, other than seeing this narcissist accrue more and more power.
This is not the case for Veep’s Selina Meyer. She immediately makes an impression as a politician whose heart is in the right place but who has been thrust into the awkward position of the Vice-Presidency where opportunities for blunders abound and chances to achieve lasting political change are few and far between. As the series goes on and Selina eventually moves on to the Presidency, we see an inversion of what happened with Frank Underwood: Underwood uses his sociopathic ruthlessness to gain more and more power, but more and more power makes Selina Meyer more disconnected and brutal.
This is most evident in the recent season of Veep where President Meyer fights to retain a Presidency she haphazardly ascended into. By now the woman from the first season who seemed to have a legitimate affection for her staffers and reluctantly compromised her lofty ideals to accomplish things is gone. This total emotional disconnect is made evident as the writers give Catherine, the first daughter of the United States, a more prominent role. We see how the President treats her own daughter largely as a walking photo opportunity and regards the young woman’s personal life only in so far as it may throw up controversial stories that might hobble her presidential bid.
It is this brutal, hilarious and, at times, even downright upsetting portrayal of political power and ambition that hits so much closer to the mark than that of House of Cards. While House of Cards plays the dysfunction of the US political system for Machiavellian melodrama, Veep recognises that caustic and ironic humour is the only way to go. In a political world where reality and sincerity are constantly obscured by image and public relations, we begin to lose all sense of reality and descend into the kind of disconnected madness out of which only laughter is possible.
While House of Cards depict a political system so swarming with Saturday morning supervillainy that one can’t help but apathetically switch your brain off and just enjoy the political equivalent of Michael Bay explosions, Veep presents to us both the more saddening and hope-affirming prospect; of a profoundly corrupt system filled with fallible people who really just want to do their best. And, it suggests, after we’re doing laughing about it, maybe we should do something about it.